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What is the Gift of Speaking in Tongues?

The issue of speaking in tongues has been a controversial issue for many years depending on which religious denomination that one belongs to. However, it is important to study and discover what the Bible contextually says about the definition and gift of speaking in tongues.

The word translated “tongues” in both Acts chapter 2 and 1 Corinthians chapter 14 is {glossa} which means “language.” It is the word from which we get our modern English word “glossary.”
The word {glossa} refers specifically to a human language or an understandable language.
Therefore speaking in tongues was the ability to speak in a language the speaker does not know, in order to communicate God’s word to someone who does speak that language.
So from the example of Acts 2:1-12, the gift of tongues is supernaturally speaking in a language a person does not know in order to minister God’s word to someone who does speak that language.
So a Christian who did not learn how to speak French can be supernaturally gifted by the Holy Spirit to minister in the French language for the benefit of the French people who are with him.

1 Corinthians 14:22 says: Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. [Emphasis Added]

According to 1 Corinthians 14:22, the gift of tongues is a sign primarily for unbelievers (who speak a different language) so that the gospel may be communicated by the power of the Holy Spirit.
An example that speaking in tongues was primarily for unbelievers is found in Acts 2:1-12 where the gift of tongues first occurred. In Acts 2 at Pentecost, Christ’s disciples (who were Jews) spoke in other languages which they had never learnt in order to communicate God’s word to the many foreigners who were present.

Acts 2:1-13When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”

The Bible does not refer to speaking in tongues as a secret language of angels nor as incoherent speech. But it refers to one speaking in a known human language that is ordinarily spoken by humans from different nations. The Greek interpretation through out the New Testament refers to tongues being a known human language.

In order to avoid confusion and deception, the Scriptures are also clear that whenever a person speaks in tongues, then there is to be verifiable interpretation of the tongues. Therefore the gift of speaking in tongues and the interpretation cannot be separated from each other (1 Corinthians 14:9-13; 23, 27).
1 Corinthians 14:27 says: If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret.
The interpretation of tongues would happen through somebody who naturally understood the language being spoken by the tongues-speaker as was in the case in Acts 2:1-13 where foreigners recognized that Christ’s disciples were speaking their foreign languages.
Alternatively the Holy Spirit would give the gift of interpretation to people so that they would supernaturally interpret what the tongues-speaker was saying for the benefit of everyone.

In conclusion, the gift of speaking in tongues is a supernatural gift which is given by the Holy Spirit. However, the scriptures identify this gift of tongues as being limited to speaking known human languages and not “angelic” languages or any type of incoherent speech which cannot be interpreted.
The Bible is also clear that whenever a person or people speak in tongues, then there must be verifiable interpretation of the tongues which are being spoken in order to avoid confusion and deception.